‘The Polar Express’ Review
In keeping with last time, here’s another Christmas staple that my opinions toward have changed slightly over the years.
But is that for better or for worse?
The film follows a young, unnamed boy as he reaches that age when most kids start questioning the whole “Santa” thing. Throughout the night, little things happen that only continue to break the figurative magic for him.
It turns out that magic may be a bit more literal then expected, however. From seemingly nowhere arrives an express train to the North Pole, manned by a conductor desperate to keep on time, and populated with a small group of other children.
After a bit of reluctance, the boy hops on and learns that one among the children will be chosen by Santa himself to get the first gift of Christmas.
A few dangers and sidetracks (ha-ha) impede the trip, all the while the boy continues to question whether or not any of this is real.
This plot does raise a couple of odd questions, like many stories of this ilk do. What’s the deal with the train, how/why does no one know Santa’s real if he actually lives in the North Pole, etc. These are the kinds of things one tends to brush off for the sake of keeping the tale mysterious/simple, and I get that. The one question that I felt should’ve at least been partially answered, however, is why these particular children were chosen to go on the trip. It’s such a small group of kids, and knowing what exactly each of them did to earn a face-to-face meet up with Mr. C would’ve been interesting.
Aside from that, it’s a pretty straightforward adventure about belief, and though it gives kind of a mixed message, I still appreciate it for that. Certain scenes feel unnecessary or a tiny bit padded, but it’s nothing major.
The characterization isn’t something I can really fault too much. The characters are all a bit thin, and occasionally the kids will give an awkward read here or there, but the writing for them is still pretty endearing.
The boy’s “crisis in faith” is something that I think many people can relate to. You can tell he’s gonna be a bit of a downer when his very first words onscreen are “stark”, “barren”, and “devoid of life”. Though he does get a few moments of levity, and he’s a likable character.
The other kids who join the boy on his adventure are all of the “endearing, but not very deep” variety. They all go through their own little mini-arcs over the course of the film, though I feel like they might have benefitted from maybe a little bit more focused.
To this day I still kinda question why Tom Hanks was cast as practically everyone in this movie. Seriously, I’m surprised he didn’t play the train, too. Though with that said, Hanks does a pretty good job all around so I can’t really complain. The Conductor is established quickly as being a flamboyant stickler with a soft spot, and the Tramp works as a subtle devil on the boy’s shoulder. I find it particularly interesting that the Tramp never actually directly implies Santa isn’t real, or that the train is a dream. He just feeds the boys doubt by parroting his own thoughts back at him.
The other kids on the train do absolutely nothing, and other background characters like the engineers are entertaining enough. It is slightly awkward when the story dictates they be promptly forgotten about, though.
Then there’s that whole thing with barely anyone having a name. I understand why they did that, but it makes everything feel a bit impersonal. Not to mention its a pain to write around.
A common problem cited in motion-capture animation (aside from the indisputably awesome ‘Adventures of Tintin’) is the Uncanny Valley effect it gives. While it’s not as big a problem here as it is in other films, the expressions here can be…really offputting. It’s not enough to ruin the movie, but it’s noticeable.
Lots of scenes here were obviously made for 3D, and while the effect isn’t quite the same without it, I won’t really complain since the majority of these scenes are pretty fun on their own.
In terms of music, the score is nice enough and I’m a sucker for the Hot Chocolate song, but ‘When Christmas Comes To Town’ never really did it for me, and it comes right out of nowhere so it feels a bit like wasted time.
Much like ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’, this film is one I appreciate much more now then I did on previous viewings. Writing wise, everything from the characterization to the humor is understated in a good way, and I almost feel like it works better for an older viewer than a younger one.
Unlike my last subject, however, the issues I do have are a bit more immersion breaking.
I still recommend it however, for anyone looking to get into the Christmas spirit.